Monthly Archives: October 2014

Black and Orange

The infamous photo of a hooded goon and his victim is a perfect icon for a snuff film. It is a classic pornographic S&M masterpiece. Above its kneeling captive, the goon stands tall, all in black and hooded—the costume preferred by hardcore sadists—knife in one hand and its other hand clutching the man’s neckband, a demeaning gesture of domination that also serves as a prelude to an execution that requires steadying the kneeling victim’s head while severing it. The photo is also an example of the vulnerability of non-combatant Westerners in the Muslim world. It wasn’t always this way.

Once upon a time, I saw several adventure films in which assailants of a pirated ship separated Americans from other ‘nationals’ on board before looting the cargo and taking hostages. I felt sympathy for the hostages, but was comforted to know that in the real world American citizenship included protection on the high seas.

Parenthetically, I might add that during Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, Moroccan bandits kidnapped an elderly playboy who was thought to be an American citizen. The leader of the band was a Berber in the tradition of “hero” bandits with a cause: in this case, “to liberate Morocco from the sultan’s yoke,” and the kidnapping took place on land. The wealthy playboy was held for ransom.

As tensions mounted between the United States and Morocco for the playboy’s release, the American Consul-General of Tangier urged Roosevelt to dispatch seven warships to Morocco’s coast. Roosevelt immediately did so. [Contrary to popular belief, Theodore Roosevelt was an altruist. His “big stick” motto applied mainly to foreign affairs and to the liberal legislation he wanted passed at home. His Rough Rider image was a personal matter that also paid off politically. And, to further keep the record straight, I submit that he never “spoke softly” except—possibly—to women.] A small detail of marines landed on shore to seize Morocco’s customhouses if and when ordered to force the Sultan of Morocco to pay the ransom. Marines guarded the Consulate where the playboy’s wife and their two children were accommodated for their safety.

Behind the scenes, it was quietly discovered that the playboy was not an American after all! When Roosevelt received that information, he said that it made no difference because the bandit believed the playboy was an American. Roosevelt tried to get Britain and France to join America in a coalition to rescue the playboy. They refused. But they pressured the Sultan of Morocco to pay the ransom. He did, and the playboy was released.

Upon his release, the playboy told the press that the Berber bandit admired and respected him. He added, “I go so far to say that I do not regret having been his prisoner for some time…He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and people from the yoke of [the Sultan’s] tyranny.”

In contrast to current international relations, the incident is quaint, almost romantic; so much so that Hollywood romanticized it far beyond its reality, e.g., the playboy was adapted to be a woman! [The title of the film is The Wind and the Lion (1975), taken from a letter written by the bandit to Roosevelt in which he compared the lion to the playboy and the wind to himself. I have not seen the film, but I’ve read portions of its script online. Surprisingly, it is far richer than those of many revered Hollywood films.]

The repulsive ISIS photo of an impending decapitation displays the consequences of an anachronism that ISIS calls a “holy war,” not just ‘Islamic Extremism,’ which apologists for Islam repeatedly call it. And, how many times must we be careful to use the expression ‘Islamic Extremism’ to assure peaceful Muslims that we do not regard all Muslims as terrorists? Average Christians and Jews don’t require such assurance. The Catholic Church stopped being extreme hundreds of years ago when the shameful Inquisition was over. And, persecution by Jews is virtually a contradiction in terms.

Why all this tiptoeing around Islam? How often must we avoid using the perfectly valid and accurately descriptive word, ‘terrorist’? A terrorist is what the hooded ghoul is. It certainly is anything but a ‘freedom fighter.’ If the creature is not a terrorist, then the word ‘terror’ in dictionaries should be described as archaic.

The British Islamic ghoul threatened to kill its captive even though it knew that American covert negotiation was impossible under highly visible global scrutiny. No space was allotted for covert diplomacy. Instead, ISIS flaunted its execution on videotape in the tradition of intimidating public executions, even though he was not any kind of criminal.

Abroad, and here in the land of free speech, Muslims are silent about the grisly murder. Giving them the benefit of my doubt, I might attribute their reticence to a fear of reprisals by their Muslim brethren even in America, or that they are accustomed to the literal form of capital punishment. Whatever the reason, it’s possible that the silence of American Muslims implies approval of the “Message to America” announced by their Middle Eastern brethren.

If the beheadings are to continue (as is most likely), it would not surprise me if euphemisms will be contrived to soften the word ‘beheading’ into ‘made-made detruncating’ or ‘man-made decollation,’ along with ‘man-made disaster.’

Of course it is no longer possible to engage in Theodore Roosevelt’s gunboat diplomacy. But will we be obliged to replace it with words appropriate to romper rooms?

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Knee-jerk Opinions

The dust has hardly settled on the last media flare up about the issue of capital punishment when yet another botched execution draws attention to “cruel and unnatural punishment.”

The emotionally charged but threadbare arguments for and against capital punishment are avidly debated but the issue invariably remains solidly unresolved. I wrote a blog titled, Hammurabi and the Religious Right (March 14, 2011) that posits a radical departure from the severely dichotomous judiciary positions on capital punishment held by the federal government, states, and individual Americans. If you read that article, you almost certainly will disagree with me about that radical suggestion.

However, rather than expanding the brief and simple message of my Hammurabi blog, this blog presumes the legal execution of capital punishment and its gruesome consequences when the execution is botched. When that happens, the media and public are morally aroused. At the center of a white-hot moral crucible is the dictum of the Eighth Amendment that forbids “cruel and unnatural punishment.” And therein lies the ultimate example of the lack of precisely considered judgments about this and many other significant issues.

Obviously, “cruel and unnatural punishment” is meant to describe punishment that is designed to be cruel and unnatural. In no way is it meant to include the consequences of an accident during a lethal procedure.

[Note: Reports of a recent botched execution included a description of a prolonged period of suffocation suffered by the prisoner. The suffocation was not intentional. Neither was the suffocation I experienced when coming out of anesthesia after my heart bypass surgery. I was fully conscious and knew that I was unable to breathe. I distinctly remember that I had no fear of death but was terrified by the thought that pain was to follow my inability to breathe in a seemingly airless room. I don’t know how long that state of uncertainty lasted in real time, but it seemed like forever to me. No air to breathe…what was next?]

Of course I don’t base my opinions about botched executions on the single personal experience I’ve described in the note above. But consider the fact that all of us are constantly subject to accidents. The Constitution cannot protect us from being pinned and in great pain while trapped in a crumpled auto or by a pile of bricks and steel. This is not an argument for capital punishment. But then, neither is the Eighth Amendment against it.

Every debate or comment I listened to on television or read online in response to the latest botched execution made no attempt to sharply differentiate between a designed and an accidental event during an execution. Diametrically opposed debaters implicitly accept and equate “cruel and unnatural punishment” with accidents. That means that they believe capital punishment itself is cruel and unnatural.

If that’s the case, either the Eighth Amendment requires adjustment or executions might be designed to be instant either at the first sign of a botched event (a gunshot to the head guarantees instant death) or the standard form of executions might initially be instant death by gunshot. Offering a prisoner the choice of instant death or death by lethal gas or injection (or any other method of execution) with a gunshot backup is another possibility just in case something goes wrong.

I read of a botched execution that triggered a heart attack, which in itself is neither unnatural nor cruel. Yet, if instant death had been an option at that botched execution, the prisoner need not have suffered a heart attack. I’m not advocating “soft” executions or the abolishment of capital punishment all together, but I do question equating cruel and unnatural punishment with accidents when debating the issue of capital punishment.

Given the profundity of this issue and the dilemma it presents, the suggestion I posit in Hammurabi may not be all that radical after all!

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